Why PR pros must address the big, white elephant in the room

White PR people in power need to participate more actively in systemic change for racial equality. For clients and organizations to thrive, everyone must have the tough conversations.

In the post-2000 modern era, the most significant and urgent moment of cultural change for racial equality is reflected in the passionate public outcry to the murder of George Floyd. The weight of this moment can even be seen in the overwhelmingly strong reactions outside the United States.

This moment has gone global—and rightly so.

As the public relations profession faces this moment of shock and somber reflection it is a time for unflinching introspection. PR is falling short as a profession if it fails to live up to its logical role to address the societal outcry with a focus on solutions.

After all, it is our profession that is supposed to craft positive, constructive strategies alongside communications that create measurable outcomes. It is our profession that is supposed to influence sound, informed, proactive management decision-making at macro and systemic levels.

It is our profession that is supposed to apply an ethical lens to every management message. (And is there any greater issue of ethics than systemic discriminatory murder in society?)

It is our profession that is supposed to consider and account for the interests of the public good in all that we do on behalf of our organizations and our management teams.

It is our profession that is supposed to have our thumbs on the pulse of stakeholder and public sentiments and motivations—so much so that it should be rare that our management teams are surprised or caught off-guard.

It is our profession that is supposed to model behaviors that go beyond pontificating and posturing about race, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Yet in the year 2020, leadership in the PR professions is still overwhelmingly white. We are failing.

And, we will continue to fail until we get this matter right and assume an authentic mantle of leadership which means more people of color in senior leadership roles and more organizations being open to discussing racism—not just diversity and inclusion—but race.

We have a big white elephant in the room—an elephant that lumbers around in the comfortable confines of the diversity-rhetoric wading pool, instead of treating race as a serious (e.g., appropriately funded) call-to-action campaign. When challenged for its inertia, inaction, or ineptitude, the elephant suddenly catches an adrenaline rush of personal offense and faux victimhood and proceeds to stampede over anyone who dares question their ineffective outputs and nearly nonexistent outcomes.

In larger society, many white U.S. citizens of divergent political affiliations “differ widely in their views of the country’s racial progress,” according to Pew Research. These divides can only be bridged through the power of credible communications and honest relationship-building—tools found in PR’s wheelhouse.

White PR people need to participate more actively in systemic change for racial equality and if they cannot (or will not) get their own house in order, then they will not be equipped to step up to the challenge on behalf of clients.

As decades of status-quo plainly illustrate, the PR industry cannot and will not satisfactorily advance under the current system of PR leadership, which brings us to our own call-to-action for the PR industry: It’s time for “the difficult conversation.”

This dialogue is not an emotional, one-way channel of communication where a company publicly posts a supportive PR statement that lacks clear and transparent action. Yes, statements show support and only statements that drive action will ring true to stakeholders, customers and the public. However, to tackle this issue with the full weight and power of PR leadership, we must start having the difficult conversations–real, one-to-one conversations with the people who experience racism and those who do not understand the complex issues at hand.

These conversations start with acknowledging that they are going to be difficult for all parties and include a significant amount of listening. A company cannot claim to its employees and customers that it is handling race, diversity and inclusion if it has not taken the time to begin the difficult conversations between leadership and staff. These conversations will feel ugly and all participants will feel disheartened, because no one can truly face the realities of racism and leave feeling good about it. But the resulting openness, understanding and support will ensure that there are more people of color in senior leadership roles and more organizations having productive conversations about race—not just diversity and inclusion.

It will take the PR professional community as a whole – those who are white and those who are not—to demand better and to challenge those leading the current status-quo.

Julia Angelen Joy is a PR pro with Z Group PR. Mary Beth West is a senior strategist with Fletcher Marketing and PR.


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